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As restrictions lift and vaccination diminishes the threat of COVID-19, life returns to Toronto, the city that always sleeps


As restrictions lift and vaccination diminishes the threat of COVID-19, life returns to Toronto, the city that always sleeps

It was never destined to end how it started: with a bang and a burst and a sudden change to every aspect of our lives. Instead, it is now what it was always going to be, a slow unsteady drip, a growing pool, a gradual return to what we used to think of as the every day.

On Friday, Ontario’s new chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore, announced that the province, almost 16 months into the pandemic shutdown, would be ready to move into a Stage 3 reopening next Friday, days ahead of schedule.

The Star’s Robert Benzie described Moore as being “visibly relieved” at the announcement. “Key indicators are trending in the right direction,” he said.

It isn’t fully over, in other words.

It would be hard to define what “over” even means now.

But it is ending in a way, here, after so many stumbles and false starts.

“It’s a pretty special moment,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Toronto.

“You can watch the life return to the city in real time.”

After lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, after lost businesses and missed friends, lonely deaths and so much fear, the province, thanks to an unprecedented vaccination campaign, will be ready next week to reopen museums and gyms, indoor restaurants, movie theatres, spectator sports, concerts and more.

If the same trends — these are falling cases and rising vaccines rates, primarily — continue, Ontario could move to a form of post-pandemic normal sometime in August. No more capacity limits. No more social circles or broken bubbles. No more wondering who to leave off the funeral list to keep the numbers down.

“It’s noticeable,” Bogoch said. “There’s just life returning to the streets. There’s people flooding patios, and soon there will be indoor dining. And I don’t know, it’s just wonderful to see. It really is wonderful to see the city and the province revitalize.”

As much as anyone not in government, Bogoch, a telegenic and willing interview, has been a public face of COVID-19 in Ontario. He’s been ever-present on TV and in the newspapers, serving as a kind of unofficial tonic to the province’s official top doctor through much of the pandemic, the muddled and often harried Dr. David Williams.

COVID-19 has been his life, in other words, in the hospital and at home, for 16 months. It’s been his everything and he’s ready to move on.

“I plan on eating in every single restaurant in the Toronto area and I’m not joking,” he said.

“I want to make a shirt that says ‘Eat My Way Through The GTA.’

“And I really, truly want to go to every Ma-and-Pa shop that’s open and try every type of food …. Mississauga, Etobicoke, Scarborough: I want to try everything, go everywhere, eat everything.

“I can’t wait to do that.”

(For the record, he plans on starting in Kensington Market with about “18 types of tacos.”)

But at the same time, what Bogoch is feeling now isn’t simple; it isn’t all joy and release. “As good as it feels, it’s not lost on me that 9,000 people in Ontario have died,” he said. “It’s not lost on me that 25,000 Canadians died. It’s not lost on me that kids missed significant portions of two school years. It’s not lost on me that business owners, both small and large, got pummeled and people are out of work and have either felt this thing financially, or from a health standpoint. It’s not lost on me that many people have lost someone very close to them.

“But it’s also not lost on me that we’re really close to the finish line.

“The worst is behind us. And it’s OK to move forward and it’s exciting to move forward. But we still can’t forget what happened over the last 16 months.”

Like so much else about the last year and a half, what Bogoch is feeling, what the whole city is feeling right now, is unprecedented. We have no model for coming out of a pandemic. There is no guide on how to deal with trauma so collective and uneven, while also celebrating the renewed joy of a movie at the TIFF Lightbox, or a favourite painting at the AGO, or just a quiet drink with a magazine at a restaurant you’re thrilled is still there.

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An Tran was supposed to open his first restaurant in Toronto in March 2020. He saved for years, borrowed money, and poured everything he had into the project, a restaurant, bakery and coffee shop called Ba Noi, or “grandmother,” in Vietnamese.

He wasn’t open yet when COVID-19 hit. Technically, he had no income and no revenue to lose. So, for months, he couldn’t get bridge loans, wage subsidies of even Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). He had a new baby. He was bleeding cash. He didn’t know if, financially, he could survive.

Eventually, Tran got his ovens working and he started selling bread, butter tarts and other baked goods out of his front window. He’s been doing well since, relatively speaking. But he isn’t ready to move on. Not even close.

For Tran, the pandemic doesn’t feel over, not yet, no matter what the government says.

“Regardless of everyone being vaxed and things opening up, I don’t really know,” he said. “I don’t want to be stuck in a situation where I invest in a lot of money in something and then I have to shut down again.”

The pandemic changed Tran. It changed his plans and his dreams and his outlook on the future. “I’m taking baby steps now,” he said. “I’m very conservative about my movements in the business …. Because I don’t know what’s going to happen.

“I’d rather just wait and see.”

Kim Tait, a mother of five and the top rock expert at the Royal Ontario Museum (she is the curator of mineralogy), feels much the same way. She knows the rules have changed. She knows things are looking good. But practically speaking, her life feels pretty much the same.

Her children aren’t vaccinated.

She’s worried about new variants.

“I don’t know if I’m feeling any different. I’m not going to lie,” she said. “Canada’s Wonderland is open, but I don’t know if we’re there yet.”

In an odd way, what’s happening now is the inverse of last March. Back then, doctors and public health experts were begging the city to take COVID-19 seriously. Now many doctors, such as Bogoch, sound more relaxed than cautious citizens wary about another false dawn.

In the earliest days of the pandemic, Dr. David Carr, an emergency room physician in Toronto, was one of the first in the city to openly, and loudly, share his fears about what was coming. It was a new role for Carr. Doctors aren’t used to telling the world that they’re afraid. But he grew into it.

He felt like he was telling Toronto what it needed to hear.

Sixteen months on, Carr feels very differently.

In a word, he feels safe.

“The biggest thing, obviously, is, I would argue, probably the greatest medical advance in the last 100 years, since insulin: the development of an unbelievable set of vaccines.”

It’s not that Carr thinks COVID-19 is over; he just doesn’t think it’s the danger it once was. “There are a lot of variants. There are going to be new variants, and we’re all going to learn the Greek letters of the alphabet,” he said.

But for the vaccinated, he believes, the risks are low.

There are even signs that life as it was before is starting to come back. In the ER recently, one of Carr’s colleagues treated someone who had been hit in the head with a beer bottle, something none of them had seen in more than a year.

“People are vaccinated,” Carr said. “People are going to have the fun they used to have. And then that’s when we’ll start seeing those problems again.”

Richard Warnica is a Toronto-based business feature writer for the Star. Reach him via email: [email protected]

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